This election day, California voters will have the added responsibility of voting on California Proposition 37 for the “right to know”. A yes vote would make mandatory the labeling of genetically modified ingredients in foods.
Genetic engineering allows genes from plants and animals with favorable traits to be incorporated into the DNA of other organisms. In agriculture, this could mean that seeds are genetically engineered to withstand extreme weather conditions and to be pest and herbicide resistant in order to ensure greater crop yields. In turn, these crops can grow in poor soil and allow for herbicide to be indiscriminately used on the field, but in smaller doses, since it will not affect the intrinsically immune crop. With more creative modifications, plants can be created to produce proteins for pharmaceutical uses (pharming), or even to create plants that remove pollutants from their environment (phytoremediation). And yet, people are against ‘frankenfoods’.
Opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) argue that this practice is a risk that cannot be controlled and has not been adequately tested. This is further complicated because engineered seeds cost money to be produced and patented. Creating ‘suicide gene’ seeds –plants that will be sterile after one season—comes at too high of a cost in seed purchase and replanting for farmers. But with genetically engineered plants still capable of reproduction, we may inadvertently upset the ecosystem, akin to transporting invasive species that cannot be tracked, since pollen from genetically modified crops is free to travel by wind and create hybrids with non-modified plants. Thus, GMO-free farms in the vicinity are put at risk for illegal possession of patented seeds. In addition, genetically engineered foods raise the risk of allergy, and create more resistant pests and weeds (similar to ‘superbug’ bacteria created by antibiotics) that will ultimately require more herbicide and pesticide to combat.
At any rate, Prop 37 is not a way to get rid of genetically engineered agriculture or animal farms; rather, it is to create options for the consumer to make educated purchases. It is a request for transparency, especially important as more ingredients (or shall we say chemicals?) are produced from a shrinking variety of plants. Canola, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, zucchini/summer squash, alfalfa, and corn are the most often genetically modified crops. Since corn, soybeans, and cotton also happen to be some of the major crops of America, the issue becomes even more serious.
But we all know, and those involved in the business of genetic engineering know, that Prop 37 will get educated consumers to snub more GMO labeled foods and this issue of food politics will get the ball rolling on a greater scale. There will probably be little affect on other more casual shoppers unless we provide more education…
Technically, if Prop 37 is voted in, companies will have to produce a unique set of labels marking GMOs for California sales, while hiding the info from the other states. Since this is costly, voting and/or labeling will probably become a nationwide practice to create only one set of labels. (This should be nothing new to the big food companies who already update labels with claims of “natural” and other vague terms that go in their favor.) Another option is for the genetically modified components to be replaced by non-GMO ingredients. Penalties for failure to properly label products will go to the state. No on Prop 37, a website on the new proposition, brings up the many loopholes of the ‘right to know’, like the fact that meat from genetically modified animals will be labeled, while the meat from non-modified animals who are fed GMO feed (there goes that corn and soy crop…) does not have to be labeled. I agree that this is strange, but Yes on 37, yet another website, states that this is a process that they are not yet willing to monitor this because it really would be an impossibly immense undertaking. This same issue exists in USDA Organic labeling: approved products may not intentionally use genetically modified components in production and preparation. The Non-GMO Project label is currently the most surefire way to aid your supermarket shopping.
As a side note, No on Prop 37 is funded by a slew of corporations invested in the GMO business, headed by Monsanto and Du Pont. They have gathered way more money than Yes on 37 which is funded by a few organic farming and pro-consumer health groups. Check out this pro-Prop 37 article by Michael Pollan for the big picture on this food movement.